National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins has warned it may take weeks before scientists ascertain the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines against the new omicron variant, which could be more contagious and have more mutations than the other strains.
“We do know that this is a variant that has a lot of mutations — like 50 of them, and more than 30 of those in the spike protein, which is the part of the virus that attaches to your human cells if you get infected,” Collins said during an interview with “Fox News Sunday.”
“That is a new record in terms of the number of mutations. It does make you worry, therefore, that it’s a sufficiently different virus, that it might not respond as well to protection from the vaccines. But we don’t know that.”
The World Health Organization has described omicron as heavily mutated and could be able to reinfect individuals previously infected with COVID-19.
Collins added that it will take “two or three weeks” for scientists to determine if antibodies from vaccines or previous infections will work against omicron.
“It’s clear that in all the previous examples of variants, the vaccines have worked to provide protection and the boosters have provided especially strong protection against things like delta,” the 71-year-old Collins said. “Given that history, we expect that most likely, the current vaccines will be sufficient to provide protection, and especially the boosters will give that additional layer of protection.”
The discovery of the B.1.1.529 variant has caused concerns globally.
“Here is a mutation variant of serious concern,” South Africa’s Health Minister Joe Phaahla said at a media briefing last week.
The Epoch Times reported that Phaahla said that the latest variant is behind the “exponential rise” of cases in that country.
Professor Tulio de Oliveira, the director of South Africa’s Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation, said during a media briefing that the new variant has an “unusual constellation of mutations” and is “very different” from other strains that have circulated, BBC reports.
The professor also said there were 50 mutations with over 30 on the spike protein. Some scientists suggest that omicron can possibly penetrate vaccines.
Dr. Angelique Coetzee, the first South African doctor to alert authorities about patients with omicron, told The Telegraph that the symptoms of the new strain are unusual but mild.
The symptoms included young people having intense fatigue and a 6-year-old child having a very high pulse rate. She added that none of her patients suffered from a loss of taste or smell.
President Joe Biden has restricted travel from eight southern African countries beginning Monday due to concerns over omicron. The eight countries include Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, Malawi and South Africa.
Several cases of the new variant have been detected in Europe.
Health authorities in the Netherlands said 13 cases of omicron were found among people on two flights that arrived in Amsterdam from South Africa on Friday, Reuters reported.
“This could possibly be the tip of the iceberg,” Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said.
At least two cases have been detected in the United Kingdom, two in Germany and one each in Belgium and Italy, according to the BBC, which reports a suspected case has been found in the Czech Republic. Omicron cases have also been detected in Hong Kong and Israel, while two cases have been reported in Canada and Australia.